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Japan's anti-nuclear protesters find the going tough, despite Fukushima disaster

Polls show the public turning against nuclear energy after Japan's Fukushima disaster. But low coverage of protests and powerful business and political interests have complicated efforts to promote change.

By Correspondent / November 23, 2011

A protester shows a 'No nukes' sign as they march during an anti-nuclear power demonstration in Tokyo, one month ago.

Koji Sasahara/AP

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Tokyo

As staffers trickle out of the powerful Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) on their way home from work, a group of women from Fukushima Prefecture shout at them through a megaphone.

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“When are we going to be able to return to our hometowns? Will they ever be safe to live in again? When will you take responsibility for this?” the women call out toward the ministry, which has been responsible for both promoting nuclear energy and overseeing its safety in Japan.    

A Buddhist monk in white and orange robes from the pacifist Nipponzan-Myohoji sect is reciting anti-nuclear chants to the beat he is tapping out on a hand drum.

The informal group of dozens of protesters has maintained a camp outside METI  for more than two months. It represents an undercurrent of anger throughout the country that, eight months after a massive earthquake and tsunami  triggered a nuclear crisis, the situation at the severely damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant has yet to be secured.  

The radioactive gas xenon was discovered earlier this month near reactor 2, and radiation levels of 620 millisieverts per hour were detected inside reactor 3 on Nov. 3.

Then, last week, tests found radioactive contamination above government safety levels in rice crops from the Onami area of Fukushima, prompting farmers in the district to suspend shipments.   

Officials at the Tokyo Electric Power company (TEPCO), which operates the facility, say that the xenon was created by natural radioactive decay and not by recent nuclear fission at the reactor, as initially feared. However, the radiation levels on the first floor of reactor 3 – the highest yet measured there ­– are more than double the 250 millisieverts that nuclear workers can be exposed to over short periods in times of emergency, according to the company’s own guidelines.

This means that workers would only be able to operate in the most highly contaminated areas for less than half an hour before they would be exposed to threatening levels of radiation.

Nevertheless, TEPCO maintains that a full cold shutdown of the damaged reactors will be achieved by the end of the year. 

The cost of a nuclear disaster

The full decommissioning of the plant is expected to take 30 years and cost up to $30 billion. The utility, once the world’s biggest by capitalization, recently secured a rescue package of 900 billion yen ($11.6 billion) from the government to keep operating in the face of the huge clean-up costs and growing compensation liabilities.   

Along with the 160,000 people evacuated due to the accident, there are the numerous businesses in sectors including tourism, agriculture, and fishing that have been devastated.

Just how much TEPCO is to be held liable for, and how much responsibility the government will take, has yet to be finalized. Authorities say they won’t set a timeframe to discuss the possibility of evacuees being able to return until the reactors have achieved cold shutdown.  

Greenpeace is calling on the Japanese authorities to, at the very least, provide financial assistance for those who want to evacuate from areas outside the 30 km (18.5 miles) exclusion zone.   

“We think that the people of Fukushima City and Koriyama City should have the right to evacuate – they don't have it yet, so that's a major demand we have, though it should not be imposed on people,” says Jan Vande Putte, an energy and nuclear campaigner at Greenpeace in Japan.  

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